Taking the flight to illegal dumping

A falconer in Lima training a vulture. Equipped with GPS and cameras, vultures are helping the authorities in the Peruvian capital track illegal dumps as well as raising public awareness about environmental problems.
A falconer in Lima training a vulture. Equipped with GPS and cameras, vultures are helping the authorities in the Peruvian capital track illegal dumps as well as raising public awareness about environmental problems.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LIMA • The vulture is a dirty scavenger to many, but Peru has recast the birds as superheroes, fitting them with high-tech gear in a bid to crack down on illegal dumping.

Wearing GPS trackers and mini video cameras, 10 vultures with mythological names have been dispatched to lead the authorities to the illegal dumps whose runoff pollutes the rivers and Pacific coastline of the Peruvian capital Lima.

In a public service announcement that looks like a Hollywood action movie preview, a "vulture" describes the campaign as a life-and-death battle between the teeming city's human population and the ominous menace of disease-carrying trash.

"Fourteen thousand years have passed since this struggle began," he says in a gravelly voice. "On one hand, pestilence and disease are hidden among the filth. On the other hand, humanity is placidly ignoring the danger that threatens."

Lima is known for the flocks of vultures that feed at its four landfills and the countless illegal dumps where an estimated 20 per cent of its trash ends up. They are often seen as pests by the city's nearly 10 million inhabitants who, according to officials, throw away 2.1 million tonnes of garbage a year.

But Captain Phoenix, Captain Aella and the other vultures drafted into the environment ministry's programme are now the protagonists in a creative social media campaign which aims to raise awareness about the problem and get Lima residents to report illegal dumps and throw away less trash.

"Vultures are our allies in the reduction of organic waste," programme coordinator Javier Hernandez told Agence France-Presse.

"In their search for food, what they're really doing is identifying places where there is organic matter and garbage. We are using that... to get the GPS coordinates and monitor these sites."

The 10 vultures - all certified disease-free - are trained to fly back to their keepers after each outing, and the video footage they capture is posted online.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Taking the flight to illegal dumping'. Print Edition | Subscribe